With his 4-year-old son hitched to his back and his wife clinging to his neck, Abid Mishal plunged into the Euphrates River. The muddy water was moving fast, too fast, and he lost control when a mortar shell landed in the river five yards from where he was swimming. His son slipped into the water.
Mishal let go of his wife and ducked underwater to look for his son. By the time he reached the little boy and pulled him up, he was almost dead. "He hardly breathed," Mishal said.
The family had hidden in their home in central Fallujah for four days last week while U.S. artillery and aircraft pounded the buildings around them. Water stopped running from the pipes, so Mishal dug a well in the backyard. The orange and peach trees in the backyard provided enough fruit for the family to survive on for a few days.
When Iraqi security forces began searching house to house for insurgents and weapons, the family grew more afraid. Then shrapnel from a rocket hit their house, damaging the ceiling, and Mishal said he knew it was time to go.
"It rained rockets in Fallujah," he said, adding that he did not know whether the rocket was fired by the Americans or the insurgents.
So last Friday, Mishal, a grocer, gathered his family and told them that they would leave Fallujah the next day. The only way out, he said, was to cross the river.
Mishal, 46, his wife, their seven children and a daughter-in-law went to the river Saturday but found no boats. They did not want to return to their house, so Mishal decided they would swim.
He and his 17-year-old son made four trips across the wide Euphrates. It took two hours to get the entire family safely to the other side. "We were like relief boats for the women and children," Mishal said.
The family walked to the Amiriya suburb northwest of Fallujah, where many of the city's 250,000 residents fled before the military operation began on the night of Nov. 8. Mishal said no one would give them a place to stay.
"They feared the Americans would think they house terrorists," Mishal said. Although the residents would not give them shelter, they told Mishal about a refugee camp in Baghdad, 35 miles to the east. He decided to take his family there.
They waited on a main highway leading to the capital and ultimately found a car with enough room for the family to squeeze in. The driver dropped them off at the camp, which had been set up by an Islamic relief group in the Monsour neighborhood of the capital. The organization was formed after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and coordinates with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society and other nongovernmental organizations.
"People came out of Fallujah and asked us to set up a place for them to stay," said Ahmed Rawi, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad. More than 63 people reside at the camp.
Mishal's wife said the situation in Baghdad was not much better than in Fallujah. "There we got rockets," she said, "and here we get sickness." Her children suffer stomach and skin problems because of unclean water and food, she said.
The family sleeps in a tent that is about six yards wide. There are three mattresses, three blankets and three pillows that the 10 family members share. The couple's daughter, Bushra, 13, said she could not sleep at night because it was so cold.
The children play outside in their bare feet. They have a small plastic soccer ball and use the tent as a goal.
"Let them play," their mother said. " It is better than if they remember they are hungry. What should I give them then?"
The circumstances they live in "don't satisfy a dog," Mishal said. "Even when we sleep, we feel the stones under our bodies. They are like the bullets we escaped Fallujah to avoid."
Mishal has spent all the money he had in his pocket when he left his home, 3,000 dinars, or about $2. He bought eggs to resell on the street to make extra money so he could buy his family bread, he said.
A week ago, Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, declared that the battle for Fallujah was over and that the city had been liberated. Much of it is now in ruins and the streets are deserted. Civilians will not be able to return until the damage is cleaned up and the U.S. military deems it safe. U.S. troops are still fighting pockets of insurgents in the city.
Mishal said he did not know whether his house was still there. "I left the city half-destroyed," he said. "I don't know what happened now."